Getting a screenplay produced and directed is the goal. Whether it’s the big screen, a streaming series, or a traditional tv show, you want an audience. So why do the majority of screenwriters fail?

Here are 7 reasons why most screenwriters fail:

  1. Focusing on getting an agent and producer.
  2. Forgetting the fundamentals of storytelling.
  3. Not using screenplay structure.
  4. Ignoring the importance of the logline.
  5. Making beginner’s mistakes.
  6. Suffering from failure-blindness.
  7. Don’t practice their craft.

Few things in writing match the excitement of sitting in a theater and observing the audience’s reaction to your movie. Unfortunately, hundreds of screenplays are submitted to agents, producers, and studios, and only a few get made into films. What follows are seven common mistakes screenwriters make.

1. Focusing on Getting an Agent and Producer

Every up-and-coming screenwriter knows that to get a screenplay accepted, you need to get a producer willing to commit the time and resources to turn their script into a film. And an agent can help get the script to the right people.

But that is putting the cart before the horse. Even if you do get your script in front of an agent, if you make beginner mistakes or hand the agent a script that doesn’t tell a good story, you will join the 90% of scripts that do not even get a “consider” in the reading process.

Many beginners do not know that many agents and producers don’t read a script until a screenplay reader. After reading the script, the reader assigns it one of three ratings:

  • Recommend: A reader assigns a “recommend” to a script because if they had the money, they would produce it themselves. The script is well-written, original, and has well-defined characters and an exciting plot. Unfortunately, only 2% to 5% of scripts receive this rating.  
  • Consider: If the reader believes the script has promise, it gets rated Consider. A script with this rating has an interesting premise and could become a “recommend” if it is improved. However, sometimes a well-written script will get a Consider because the reader isn’t sure it could make money. Around 5% to 10% of scripts will be rated “consider.”
  • Pass: Unfortunately, the majority of scripts (95%) will get a pass. Most scripts are awarded a pass for a variety of reasons. It’s possible that the script is inconsistent, and lacks an interesting premise, theme, or storyline. In addition, one-dimensional characters and terrible dialogue can contribute to a pass.

The odds being what they are, forget about getting an agent or finding a producer until you have written scripts that will get at least a consider.

2. Forgetting the Fundamentals of Telling a Story

Screenwriters sometimes get caught up in the dramatic idea of their script that they forget a movie needs:

  • Interesting characters
  • A suspenseful plot
  • Believable dialogue

A good screenplay needs a protagonist who is faced with a problem that will test their flaws. Then, as the plot continues, every solution to a problem should create another, more difficult challenge until the climax.

Both the plot and characters need to be realistic. There needs to be a theme, or deeper truth, in the story, and the dialogue should move the story forward.

Ignore the fundamentals, and you can count on your script getting a pass.

3. Not Using Screenplay Structure

In a play with three acts, the curtain often goes down at the end of an act, followed by a five-to-ten-minute intermission before the next act. A movie, of course, shows continuous action, but screenwriters, directors, and producers still refer to screenplays as having a series of acts.

After the set-up, which introduces the main character and the basic situation, a screenplay has three acts. Remember all screenplays are different – but structure guidelines can be useful!

  • In Act One, the main character comes to the first significant plot decision against the antagonist.
  • During Act Two, the main character and antagonist come into conflict, with the antagonist gaining the upper hand. At the end of the second act, the protagonist appears to have been defeated.
  • In Act Three, the protagonist has a realization that allows them to defeat the antagonist.

Once you identify the three main acts of your screenplay, it’s time to think about story sequences, which are often referred to as “beats.” A beat starts with a series of shots that make a scene, and a beat is a series of scenes that create a major story film series.

For example, the first beat introduces the main character and the problem. The second beat introduces the antagonist. The third beat creates the first major confrontation, and the main character overcomes the first problem in the fourth beat.  

But in beat five, the antagonist creates a more difficult challenge. This fifth beat is also sometimes where Act Two begins. 

Therefore, it is helpful to break down acts into a series of four beats each. You might think your plot is interesting enough that you don’t have to follow this structure. However, other screenwriters, readers, agents, and producers will notice the difference.

4. Ignoring the Importance of the Logline

Some screenplay writers forget the importance of a logline. Producers and agents are busy people inundated with scripts and ideas, and you must create a powerful and compelling logline.

To write a logline, you will need to boil your screenplay down to a one-sentence summary that needs three parts, which include the protagonist, that person’s goal, and how the antagonist will attempt to force the main character to be defeated.

There are many formulas you can use to write a logline. One is to create a sentence that looks like this:

  • When (inciting incident) happens, the (protagonist) must (the objective) or else (the defeat).

Your goal for a logline is to boil your play down into a sentence that sells the idea of your story, not the story itself. 

5. Making Beginner’s Mistakes

Some mistakes immediately mark you as a beginner. And once readers see you as a beginner, they are quicker to fault and pass on the script. Here are those mistakes that you will want to avoid:

  • You format the scene descriptions (slug lines) incorrectly by adding too many details. On top of the Empire State building, dusk—is correct. On top of the Empire State Building, near the railing, with the sun setting behind the couple—is a mark of an amateur.
  • Character descriptions are too detailed. Age, personality quality, and perhaps 2-3 visual details are all you need.
  • Camera angles and other artistic decisions. The director is in charge of those, and they will be annoyed by the details and change them anyway.

Of course, you want to format the script correctly, but luckily, you can easily find templates to do so. Fountainize is an app that works with Google Docs to do the formatting as you write. 

6. Suffering from Failure-Blindness

Writers who suffer from failure-blindness are not willing to consider that their script might be the reason it was rejected. They tend to ignore feedback and continue repeating the same mistakes, expecting a different outcome.

The alternative is to fall into self-pity. 

Self-pity is needed and okay if you give yourself a deadline. Take a weekend and process your emotions. Do what will comfort you, whether it be eating junk food or lying around the house doing nothing. And when your deadline is up, move on.

7. Don’t Practice Their Craft

Beginning screenwriters will write one script, polish it, send it off, and wait. But no one gets better at doing something by waiting. Instead, a screenwriter should do the same thing that a novelist and poet do, which is to write and write and write.

Some writing coaches recommend that you write several screenplays before sending out your first one. If nothing else, write loglines and treatments of future scripts.

Screenwriters fail for many reasons. Perhaps the biggest failure is not realizing that failure can be an education. If you received feedback when your script was rejected, take it seriously. Seek out more readers. Pitch the idea of your screenplay and see how people react. Most importantly, don’t take rejection personally. 

Successful screenwriters have been rejected, replaced, or fired. If your script gets rejected, don’t worry. You’re in good company.

Categories: Screenwriting

Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.